By studying John the Baptist, we can become a prophetic witness to the second coming.
We live in an interesting cultural moment. The church, which once seemed to hold such prominence in America, now finds itself increasingly on the margins. This trend can be scary to some, but we must find winsome and creative ways to engage this culture for the sake of those around us.
Thinking about cultural engagement, however, isn’t something necessarily new to the church. Like any other time, church leaders must ask, “How can we help our churches think about our engagement as aliens and sojourners in a pagan and post-Christian land?”
Here are four observations about how John the Baptist was a prophetic witness to the first coming of Christ and how the church, too, can be a prophetic witness to the second coming of Christ. By prophetic witness, I mean believers who seek to embody and evangelize the truth that the King has come and is coming again to make all things new.
Preserve a Prophetic Existence.
John the Baptist lived in the desert, wore unfashionable clothes and had an unusual diet. Interestingly, he didn’t have to do any of those things. He did so out of a prophetic existence. As a result, his prophetic residence pointed to a future deliverance; his prophetic style and diet pointed to living a simple life.
As believers, our prophetic existence necessitates us remembering that this world is not our permanent home and that we are looking forward to a home yet to come (Heb. 13). Therefore, we live in the here and now as ambassadors (2 Cor. 5), strangers and exiles (1 Peter 2) in a foreign land. Our lifestyle points to a coming new world.
When this world doesn’t look or feel like home, we don’t attack, criticize, denigrate or retaliate. We love, pray and intercede for the world—all the while exclaiming, “Maranatha!”
Proclaim a Prophetic Message.
John the Baptist had a simple message: “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 3:1–2). The major difference between his prophetic message of repentance and ours is that it falls before Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection.
Today, the church has the same message with a lot more precision, power and authority—given Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. We, too, proclaim to the world in loving ways to repent—to change their heart, mind and direction, and attune them to Christ. In changing direction, we tell them to confess their sins and ask him for forgiveness as they make him the center of their lives and wait for his return (Acts 1:11; Rev. 21).
“Repent, for the King has come and is coming again” is the prophetic message we have for the world—that we take to the world.
Practice a Prophetic Voice.
John the Baptist rebuked the religious leaders of his day for their bad orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Don’t miss this distinction. He proclaimed a prophetic message to the people but practiced a prophetic voice to the Pharisees and Sadducees. On one hand, he called people to repent for the King was coming; on the other, he rebuked people who should have known to repent because the King was coming.
The church must learn to practice a prophetic voice that is anchored in the authority of God’s Word. It doesn’t work on a secular culture or on a people not claiming allegiance to Jesus.
However, many Christians want to practice a prophetic voice on nonbelievers in the realms of entertainment, sports, politics, etc. Rather than calling out nonbelievers for behaving like nonbelievers, Christians should use a prophetic voice on those who share a common authority. Christ followers practicing a prophetic voice would rebuke believers (and especially leaders) who have detoured from the gospel—theologically or practically.
Perform a Prophetic Duty.
John the Baptist had one duty: to prepare the way of the Lord. He existed to make much of the coming of Jesus by preparing the hearts of people to receive him when he came. Everything he did and all of who he was revolved around this sacred duty.
Today, our prophetic duty can be summarized in quoting from Peter’s first epistle: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession. … Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (2:9–10).
The church throughout history has demonstrated this prophetic duty living as the people of God in a pagan world. Walter Wink noted (quoting from Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Theologian), “The victory of the church over … the Roman imperial system was not won by seizing the levers of power; it was won when the victims knelt down in the Colosseum and prayed in the name of Jesus for the Emperor.”
There are countless other examples of the church performing her prophetic duty of living for the King. When the church performs the prophetic duty to reflect the King in all realms of life, she becomes most missionally effective in the world.
In light of being a prophetic witness, the church might want to rethink how she goes about engaging culture. I believe Jesus is more concerned with having a godly missional church than having the church live in a Christian nation.
Our goal isn’t to make our home here, but to reflect our coming home, the New City Jerusalem. And in all honesty, we’ve actually seen the church in history have success living this way in a pagan land.